University of Earth
Projects Overview (Explanations)
Integrative Knowledge Project (Explanations)

Comments: Transdisciplinarity and its articulation

Integrative Knowledge Project

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1. Unarticulated "holism" as a conceptual trap

In the desperate search for meaningful forms of conceptual integration, some simplistic forms of holism have exerted a hypnotic effect. The "holographic paradigm" and the concept of "Gaia" have performed a useful function in focusing attention on the possibility of forms of integration beyond the fragmentation of the disciplines. This tends to be achieved at the expense of any means of articulating variety and detail within such perspectives.

Setting up integrative perspectives in opposition to fragmented frameworks is not sufficient. It does not provide a basis for organized action -- or rather it opens the way to abusive forms of action in the name of "integration". Furthermore it merely establishes a new form of (part-whole) polarization when what is required is a more insightful way of dealing with polarization -- and benefitting from its advantages when appropriate.

2. Transdisciplinary conceptual transformation

The need for conceptual scaffolding is clear given the kinds of complexity with which society has to work. The challenge of making the more complex structures comprehensible is also clear -- those most appropriate to the challenge of sustainable development may be beyond the ability of any single human mind to grasp (Judge, 1986a). But any form of development implies structural transformation. Whilst transforming simplistic structures, like conference agendas and organization charts, may pose little challenge, the transformation of the complex structures described earlier is quite another matter.

The process of conceptual or social transformation appears to call for a form of dynamic scaffolding which provides some form of continuity -- from stage to stage -- through the transformation process. What we are looking for is a form of scaffolding onto which relationships can be mapped, and then be stretched or changed into what might be some very different kind of structure -- suggesting new kinds of relationships between the concepts so bound. The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly provides a sobering metaphor of the possible complexity of the challenge.

Two examples of this kind of structure may be noted:

(a) Image transformation: The facility of image-transformation on computer suggest many possibilities. The challenge is to find ways of relating conceptual structures and real-world challenges to such images. Of special interest is the way in which development is to be understood or encoded in such image transformation. For example, if the many details of the global problematique could be encoded onto one (or more) archetypal animals, suitably animated, this would be of major conceptual and symbolic significance -- especially when the animation can be used to represent a transformation process. The media advantages are obvious.

(b) Vector equilibrium: Buckminster Fuller (1975, 1982) drew attention to a very unusual symmetrical polyhedron, the vector equilibrium (normally known as the cuboctahedron). It is unusual in that it lies on a transformational pathway to a variety of other structures. An appropriately jointed model can be transformed into an icosahedron and from there to an octahedron and on to a tetrahedron. The merit of this model, aside from the many claims made by Fuller himself, is that it provides a way of understanding the structural transformation process. The challenge in a policy-making environment is not to focus on this particular structure, but rather to use it as an example to persuade topologists to locate other transformational systems of this kind so as to build up a library of possibilities on which to draw.

Presumably it will only be through such explorations that conferences can anchor their transformative insights so that people can recognize and have confidence in the structural continuity of appropriate change, rather than being threatened by change of any kind -- and therefore resistant to it.

3. Enabling new strategies towards higher conceptual orders

The real challenge for policy-making in relation to the crises of our times is to provide people with tools to counter the imaginal deficiency from which we collectively suffer when dealing with complexity. The texty, linear-environment of speeches, messaging and documents has a poor track record. Eminent experts, with suitable budgetary encouragement, can now be found to negate the importance of any problem (or corresponding policy), whether over-population, acid rain, low-level radiation exposure, or smoking. Their "facts" are no longer a reliable basis for action.

Just as aircraft were faced with the technological challenge of the sound barrier, computer software developers face the challenge of the imagination barrier - to produce software capable of facilitating more complex forms of conceptual communication in policy and conferencing environments. The "sub-sonic" policy conferencing problems of adaptive decision-making have been largely solved. But we do not yet know how to ensure the stability and integrity of policies functioning at a higher imaginative level. The conventional organizational and conceptual structures tend to get shaken apart by the dynamics to which they endeavour to respond. In terms of an architectural metaphor, it has proved impossible to lock policy "keystones" into position to redistribute the stresses characteristic of policies of a complexity appropriate to the challenge.

However, even when developed, it seems unlikely that the majority of policy-making constituencies concerned with adaptive policy- making will have access to such facilities or see the need for them. One difficulty is that it is always possible to argue that the concrete, short-term, simple procedures currently in common use are sufficient in a crisis-management environment. Another is that much of what passes for international projects and programmes is in effect reactive, crisis management. Upbeat reporting of their successes is always possible. But in strategic terms it is rather like a chess novice playing a grand master. The novice can be allowed to delude himself by many short-term gains as he progressively sinks into a more and more disadvantageous strategic situation from which recovery is hopeless. This is the dilemma of sustainable development.

4. Metaphors of transformation: breaking through the "imagination barrier"

Metaphor is renowned as a key to creative thinking and innovation and a most intriguing unexplored resource to guide the elaboration of more complex conceptual frameworks and organizational structures. Information systems have traditionally been ruthless in eliminating the ambiguity of metaphor from the communications they support. However, one great advantage of metaphor is that, like rumour and humour, and if well-chosen, it travels rapidly through any network, whether computer-assisted or not. How then might it be possible to marry metaphor processing into policy-making environments as a way of breaking through the imagination barrier ?

Consider the fashionable focus for the international community at this time, namely sustainable development. How is this complex notion to be carried and addressed in the imagination, and especially in the media. Metaphor can be used to highlight the collective difficulty in developing strategies to bring it about. Metaphors such as "global village" or "Gaia" do not give focus to the strategic dilemma and the operational opportunities. Due to imaginal deficiency, sustainable development is best understood at this time through the metaphor "having our cake and eating it too". This corresponds to its corporate (re)interpretation as "sustainable competitive advantage". Both are tragic examples of poverty of imagination in a complex environment.

Consider a policy environment in which text (including speech), data and graphics were treated as infrastructure "plumbing" and in which the conceptual centre of gravity was shifted to an imaginative level sustained and disciplined by the computer-assisted use of metaphor. A major concern in the conference would be to ensure the circulation of meaning through metaphor. Complex conceptual insights would be expressed succinctly through metaphor. The challenge would not be who could dominate the discussion in quantitative air-time terms, procedural manipulation, or resolutions passed. Rather it would be a question of who could produce the most seductive metaphors to capture the strategic complexities and the opportunities for the formation (and survival over time) of hitherto impossible coalitions of bodies favouring seemingly incompatible policies based on integrative conceptual frameworks of unsuspected elegance.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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